In Their Words: William Wellman

Director William Wellman was a leap year baby, born on February 29, 1896. “Wild Bill” enjoyed a long and prolific career, directing such classics as Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star Is Born (1937) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), among many others.

One of our personal hard and fast rules goes as follows: If it’s a pre-code picture and it’s directed by William Wellman, watch it. It’s an approach that every movie buff could benefit from.

Dizzy Dialogue in ‘Christopher Strong’

While watching Christopher Strong (1933) recently, we were struck by one perplexing line of dialogue. First, some context…

Christopher Strong posterIn the movie, Colin Clive plays the title character, a member of Parliament who prides himself on his love for and commitment to his wife of many years (played by Billie Burke, who was, it’s interesting to note, nearly 16 years older than Clive). Their daughter, Monica (played by Helen Chandler, who was just six years younger than Clive—quite a trick, that), is a thrill-seeker who, as the movie opens, is involved with Harry Rawlinson (Ralph Forbes), an unhappily married man.

Katharine Hepburn plays Lady Cynthia Darrington, a world-renown aviatrix, in the picture, which was just her second movie. We’ll get back to her.

Rawlinson eventually divorces his wife and weds Monica. Sir Strong and Lady Strong initially oppose Monica’s marriage to a man she was having an adulterous affair with, but when she announces that she’s pregnant, they are persuaded to accept the union and be happy for Monica and Harry.

But here’s the point of this post: During a scene at a restaurant, where Monica and Harry have just revealed to Lady Strong that they are expecting, in walks Lady Darrington—who, as it happens, is having an affair with Sir Strong (we know, we know) and is, unbeknownst to him, also pregnant.

A woman of her acquaintance approaches Lady Darrington to share Monica and Harry’s news of a coming blessed event, and in sharing this news with her, the woman says something along the lines of, “They don’t yet know whether it’s a girl or a boy.”

And that left us scratching our heads: Monica and Harry have just learned they’re pregnant, and it’s 1933. Of course they don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, right? We almost expected Lady Darrington to do a double-take and say, “Of course they don’t know if it’s a boy or girl—how could they?”

So why was that line in the picture?

We wondered if perhaps we just weren’t up to speed on the state of obstetrics in the early 1930s, so we checked with our favorite ob-gyn, Dr. Mary Kirk, and asked her if there were, at that time, accurate scientific methods of determining the sex of an unborn child that we were simply unaware of.

“In the 1930s, you would find out the sex in the delivery room,” said Dr. Kirk. “There were all kinds of old wives’ tales, but nothing reliable. Ultrasound was not even very accurate or consistent until the 1970s, and only then much later in a pregnancy.”

In short, Dr. Kirk agreed that the line of dialogue was very odd, indeed. So the mystery of why it was included remains…

Happy 112th Birthday, Una Merkel!

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teenaged protagonist (perhaps not coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.

Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.

Una Merkel

Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.

Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)

Merkel is said to have resembled Lillian Gish during the early years of her career, and she served as her stand-in for a while (on the 1928 classic The Wind, among others). After some time on Broadway, she was back before the cameras, portraying Anne Rutledge in D. W. Griffith‘s 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln.

As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.

But our crush stems from her work in the 1930s, when she was every glamour gal’s best pal in movies such as Red-Headed Woman, 42nd Street, and Bombshell.

Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Harlow and Louise Beavers.

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on Dec 10, 2013.

Wowed by Warren William

Though he may not be well remembered by your average Jill or Joe, for movie buffs, Warren William is an icon of talkies-era Hollywood—especially the pre-code years.

Though he played a few good guys, William’s typical character ranged from roué to to slimeball. He is, for fans of 1930s cinema, the man we love to hate. As Roger Fristoe wrote for tcm.com, “William played his fast-talking, opportunistic characters with such style and dash that Depression-era audiences often found themselves rooting for him.”

William’s characters were not fellows you’d trust with your sister—or your wife. Or your girlfriend. Or your cousin. Or your mother. But he had a slimy sort of savoir-faire that makes him but irresistible to on the screen, silver or small.

We rarely pass up an opportunity to see a Warren William picture, and neither should you. He’s the featured star today—Thursday, August 30—during TCM’s August Under the Stars festival. If you’re familiar with Warren’s work, you’re bound to find a title or two you’ve not seen among the 16 pictures being shown during his 24 hours in the spotlight.

And if you’ve not yet been exposed to William, set that alarm clock or DVR to ensure you don’t miss a minute of the fun, which kicks off at 6 a.m. ET with 1934’s Bedside, a prime pre-code that will serve a fine introduction to William’s slithery charms.